Lt. Gov. touts special session during Laurel visit

By: 
KATHLEEN GILLULY
Outlook managing editor
Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney visited the Laurel Outlook last week and discussed getting the legislature back for a special session.

Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney thinks Montana is generally on the right track. Income is increasing and unemployment is low. That said, the state’s second in command makes the case for having a special session of the legislature to find ways to offset what are sure to be painful budget cuts.
“The cuts will be devastating, especially on the human level, but also on the economic level,” he said during a visit to the Outlook last week. “We need to get the legislature back for a special session and come to a consensus to lessen the blow.”
Legislators pared down Montana’s budget in the 2017 session by almost $218 million although they chose not to implement measures to increase revenue. Now, because the Republican-led legislature was overly optimistic about incoming revenue, deeper cuts have been set in motion, according to Cooney.
“Revenue was down and we couldn’t have anticipated the high cost of the fire season we had,” he said. The 2017 fire season was the worst in two decades and the price tag is approaching $400 million, with the state’s responsibility $70 million.
Additionally, Montana law calls for the governor to keep reducing spending as the bank balance drops. The amount of the cuts are triggered in four phases—and the trigger has already been pulled. The state must restore $227 million to keep the minimum ending balance. The money can come from cuts or new revenue.
“We have bills to pay, primarily to fund schools at the end of November,” Cooney said. “The Governor doesn’t care who gets credit, but we have to deal with this. It is an emergency situation.”
If cuts are implemented they have to be made out of the state’s general fund. With 85 percent of the general fund paying for corrections, health and human services and education, those are the services that will take the hit.
“These cuts will hurt the most vulnerable Montanans,” Lt. Gov. Cooney said, “and the effects will be felt by almost everyone.”
Cooney is hoping to convince Montanans that Gov. Bullock’s call for a mix of budget cuts and increased taxes is the best approach to the crisis and that they, in turn, will convince their state representatives of the wisdom of that approach. But he emphasized that time is running out.
“The governor has asked for guidance from state agencies,” Cooney said. “He has the authority to cut 10 percent from most departments, but that would cause tremendous hardship.” Cooney noted that programs that allow senior citizens to stay in their homes, keep small medical centers and hospitals running, provide mental health services and foster care are at stake. The state’s discount prescription plan, veterans’ programs, K-12 and higher education and detention facilities will also be among those facing cuts.
Although the Governor has said there is no way around all of the cuts, they can be less painful with increases to taxes on tobacco, wine, medical marijuana, the bed tax and earners whose income exceeds $500,000, as he recommended during the 2017 legislative session.
“I don’t know anybody who won’t be affected,” Cooney said. “But the governor’s door is open and if we get everyone to the table we can make this less impactful.”
He noted there is no need to call a special session if lawmakers aren’t open-minded about reaching a compromise.

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